Arrogance and Impunity - Coca-Cola in India
How long will it take before the powers that be in India refuse to
allow multinationals to treat Indians as guinea pigs?
In what can only be characterized as arrogance and impunity, we are
learning that Coca-Cola and Pepsi have continued to sell soft drinks
in India with dangerously high levels of pesticides - three years
after even the government of India confirmed that these products were
Perhaps the cola companies know something that we do not? Are Indians
immune to high levels of pesticides? It is time for the cola companies
to provide details of the studies they must have conducted to convince
themselves that the average Indian can consume pesticides safely at
levels 24 times the average American and European.
It is difficult to fathom the business logic of a company that boasts
of having one global standard, yet three years after being rapped
by the Indian government, continues to sell products in India without
making any improvements.
The pesticides in soft drinks in India is a classic case of double
standards, one for Americans and Europeans, and another for Indians.
Coca-Cola products made in India could never be sold in the European
Union markets or the United States. On at least 10 occasions since
January 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration has rejected the
shipment of Coca-Cola products made in India coming into the US, on
the grounds that they do not conform to US laws and that they are
unsafe for the US public.
Both the cola companies' excuse that they have met the (non-existent)
norms for soft drinks in India falls flat in its face. In this day
and age of globalization, standards are also globalized. The onus
is upon the global companies to provide a product that is safe for
consumers. Period. If a product is unsafe for Americans, it is also
unsafe for Indians. It is the responsibility of Coca-Cola and Pepsi
to clean out the contaminants from the raw materials before bringing
it to market.
It is indeed ironic that on the one hand, these very companies argue
for global rules for trade and corporate investment, but when challenged
for their misdeeds, try to invoke local and national laws.
Unfortunately, the cola companies' transgressions run much deeper
in India, both figuratively and literally.
In various parts of India, from Plachimada in south India to Mehdiganj
in north India, communities living around Coca-Cola bottling plants
are experiencing severe water shortages. The communities accuse the
Coca-Cola company of creating water shortages because of over extraction
of water and pollution of the scarce remaining water.
And the communities have the numbers to back it up. Tests conducted
by the Central Pollution Control Board, for example, found excessive
levels of lead and cadmium in all of the Coca-Cola waste it surveyed
in bottling plants across the country, leading the CPCB to order the
Coca-Cola company to treat its waste as hazardous waste. Prior to
the CPCB study, the Coca-Cola company was distributing its toxic waste
to farmers around its bottling plants, as fertilizer! Test results
released just two weeks ago have confirmed that the water is also
polluted, making it unfit for human consumption.
In Plachimada, Kerala, one of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants
has been shut down since March 2004 because of the intense community
opposition to the plant. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board
has also issued a stop order notice to the company's bottling plant
because of the pollution by the plant.
In a highly irresponsible practice, the Coca-Cola company has located
many of its bottling plants in India in "drought prone" areas, areas
that were already experiencing severe water crisis. In Rajasthan,
for example, a study by the Central Ground Water Board found that
water tables had dropped 10 meters in just five years since Coca-Cola
began its bottling operations in Kala Dera.
A formidable movement has emerged in India from these communities
to challenge the Coca-Cola company for its indiscriminate exploitation
of water resources and pollution.
As with the pesticide issue, the Coca-Cola company has challenged
every study that has been produced implicating it for its wrongdoings.
The company has also hired a high-priced lobbyist in New Delhi whose
job, according to the International Herald Tribune, was to
"ensure, among other things, that every government or private study
accusing the company of environmental harm was challenged by another
Arrogance? You bet. Impunity? No doubt.
Communities in India impacted by Coca-Cola's practices enjoy tremendous
support internationally, and the global movement to hold the company
accountable for its abuses in India is having a major impact. The
prestigious University of Michigan, for example, has placed the Coca-Cola
company on probation until it is able to convince the administration
that it is taking steps to rectify its wrongdoings in India.
The Coca-Cola company has been forced to acknowledge the growing discontent
around its operations in India, but it is doing too little, too late.
It has, instead, revved up its public relations machinery, a far cry
from what the communities are demanding.
As India grapples with setting standards for soft drinks to ensure
consumer safety, it should also urgently act to protect communities
across the country reeling from water shortages, courtesy Coca-Cola.
It may surprise many to know that Coca-Cola and Pepsi pay nothing
for the water that they use in India, which runs in the hundreds of
millions of liters every day. It is also a very wasteful industry,
particularly when it comes to the valuable resource of water. It takes
Coca-Cola nearly four liters of freshwater to produce one liter of
product. In other words, the company converts seventy five percent
of the freshwater it extracts into wastewater, which in turn has contaminated
the scarce remaining groundwater and land.
The entire life-cycle of Coca-Cola - from the extraction of water
to the delivery of the pesticide laden product- is wrought with problems.
In India, Coca-Cola uses the slogan in Hindi -Life ho toh aisi
- Life should be like this.
We don't think so.
For more information, visit www.IndiaResource.org
Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of India Resource Center, an
international campaigning organization working to challenge abuses
by multinational corporations.
Coca-Cola Quit India
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